Recently, I checked out Waldermar Heckel’s “Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great: A Prosopography of Alexander’s Empire” in order to read the entry on Hephaestion. I must say that the attitudes reflected in the entry did not please me much. I seem to see these same attitudes reflected in other places regarding Hephaestion, including, I fear, in the opinion of a very good friend.
Heckel states that Hephaestion “clearly…had no extraordinary abilities as a general, as his undistinguished military record shows.” He qualifies this by ‘graciously’ allowing that he “did provide useful service as Alexander’s ‘utility man'”. Here, I think, is the root of the problem. Hephaestion seems to have excelled more at organization than he did fighting. Traditional ideas of gender roles have always demanded that to be a ‘true man’, one has to excel at things traditionally thought to be the sole purview of a male, including fighting, hunting, and weaponry. Now, I have never been one who has been devoted to the cause of reading history through the lens of gender, but this idea seems to permeate the literature regarding Hephaestion.
Too many times, if the source admits that he had any good effect on Alexander and his campaign, it is to allow that he had some ability for organizing. Jeanne Reams, whose work is available in the articles section on this website and should be read following this, points out that he not only had some ability, but he, in fact, was so skilled at logistics that he was the power behind the throne. The problem is logistics is not traditionally thought sexy. In fact, throughout the history of the Western world, the ideal woman was not only to be beautiful but also to excel at organizing and managing the home. Food and lodging were contained in the domestic sphere which was not to ever interact with the business sphere that men operated in.
By emphasizing that Hephaestion’s talents lay in what they have labled as the realm of women, they lessen both his masculinity and his conributions to the running of Alexander’s empire. Much as Oliver Stone did in his tragic movie Alexander, they firmly place him as an equal of the women in Alexander’s life. Men like Craterus, Perdiccas, and even Ptolemy are valued higher for their talents lay in their miliary abilities as should be with men.
Perhaps, this bias is due to the fact that the Alexander literature is largely written by white men of Western European descent. After all, the major countries of Europe, France, Germany, and especially England, imposed these ideas all over the world as they colonized it creating settlements in their own image. Why should they not also impose those same ideas on the history they studied. After all, their success was proof that God approved of their society. Any society that succeeded must then share their ideals or it would have faced the same destruction their bible told them had befallen Sodom and Gommorah.
There are those, including a dear friend, who would say that they do not value Hephaestion as highly because he is not mentioned in the sources as the others are. I would ask those people to reexamine the sources in light of their author’s and this bias. The sources were all written by men of a privledged class–the most highly regarded author being a military man. I think it is therefore required that one filter their words through at least the possibility that this bias exists for if we as historias do not filter the bias to arrive at truth then we are little better than common gossips.
My contention is this–that Hephaestion is undervalued beginning in the sources and continuing to this present day because he does not neatly fit traditional ideas of what a man should be and since there are only two traditionally accepted gender roles–man and woman–he is thus assigned to be more woman than man. Thus he is more easily dismissed than his counterparts, and any contributions made are easily swept under the rug.
As always, these posts are meant to be a starter for a dialogue. So feel free to comment.